By Derek Reimherr
Growing up, my parents always told me to stay far, far away from credit cards. For a long time, this was really, really good advice. If I had owned a credit card in college, you better believe I would’ve spent money on things I didn’t need, namely a gaming computer. There were so many times I looked at my bank account and said, “I can do this. I have enough money.” But I couldn’t bear to part with the money. A credit card would’ve opened up all that sweet, sweet high-resolution gaming goodness.
This is why until I was 22 years old I threw away every single credit card offer that came in the mail. RIP dozens of Discover It! cards.
(Side note: I still haven’t found the right justification for dropping $1,500 on all the equipment I need for a gaming computer instead of going on a vacation. Harry Potter World feels more important than being able to play desktop games instead of PlayStation.)
Over time though, I proved to myself I was (somewhat) financially responsible. And eventually, a credit card made fiscal sense. Once we started looking, we realized we had several criteria a new credit card had to meet before we made the leap.
- Sign-up bonus
- Exclusive offers/discounts/coupons
- Interest rate
You might be asking yourself why the interest rate is our least important criterion. It boils down to the biggest reason why we even own seven different credit cards.
We pay off our balances at the end of every month. In 4 years, I’ve only paid interest twice. Both times were due to mistakes when setting up auto-payments.
The internet term for how we use credit cards is “churning.” Basically, we take advantage of ridiculous sign-up offers and perks credit cards offer. But because we pay off our cards every month, we never deal with the absurd interest rates.
In fact, if you don’t have the discipline or ability to pay off your credit cards every month, click away now. I’m not going to even mention interest rates in my discussion (but you can read more about money tips here). In my opinion, you shouldn’t have a credit card if you’re going to flirt with 15-30% interest rates, depending on the card.
Some people will say you should carry a balance on a 0% APR credit card to build credit. I would ignore those people.
Some people will suggest using a 0% APR sign-up offer to float yourself during hard times. I would say ignore that advice unless you’re in dire financial straits.
(Note: If you ever “need” to do this, I highly recommend the Chase Freedom card. I’ll talk more about this later.)
We didn’t go out and sign up for a bunch of credit cards in one year, though. We built this collection at a rate of roughly two credit cards per year. So let’s walk through what we did chronologically.
It doesn’t get any more baby steps than this because it’s a charge card. You don’t get a choice: the payment is due at the end of every month. I initially got this card for business expenses and I used it for years exclusively for this purpose. I still have one for work now. The annual fee is only $95 and it’s a “foot in the door” card for many Amex members. I would not recommend having this card for personal reasons except in two cases. The first would be as a way to practice using a credit card and the second would be to have a basis credit card for purchase protection.
Remember that “foot in the door” card thing I mentioned? That’s how we both ended up with Delta Amex cards. The annual fee is still $95, but the direct tie-in with Delta limits your rewards and points.
We signed up because of the Delta SkyMiles bonus sign up offer. This was a major boon for us: Maggie and I were in a long distance relationship at the time. Our sign up bonus netted us about 3 round trip plane tickets. This card is great if (and only if) you fly Delta a lot. If you do, you get triple miles on all Delta expenses, 1 skymile per dollar spent otherwise, Zone 1 boarding perks, free checked bags, and bonus miles for using your card on Lyft (this might be temporary). I hesitate to recommend this card, though. Delta SkyMile redemption rates and Medallion Member rewards have deteriorated over the years. For these reasons, we’re planning to cancel our Delta Amex cards. We predominately use a different co-branded airline rewards card instead.
Once again, the sign-up bonus drew us in. In this case, it was 40,000 miles each after spending $1,000 in three months. On Southwest, 80,000 miles can be worth 5 or more round trip plane tickets. We’re waiting to get our second Southwest card until we book our spring trip to Los Angeles to visit friends.
I was never a big fan of Southwest because of the boarding process. In case you’re unfamiliar, you get a boarding position based on when you check-in. Then you go stand in your position at the gate and board in order. I like to roll up at the very last second and walk onto the plane 15 minutes before take off (which Maggie HATES). Southwest doesn't work with this strategy.
Anyway, we’ve stuck it out with the Southwest card. You get double miles on Southwest purchases and one mile per dollar spent otherwise. Southwest flies bags for free and doesn’t have rewards miles blackout dates like other airlines. The big draw for keeping this card is the “cardiversary” bonus. There are two slightly different tiers with this card: Plus and Premier. The Plus card nets you 3,000 points every year and the Premier card pulls in 6,000. The annual fees are differ, with the Plus running at only $69 a year and the Premier at $99. The only reason to get the Premier, aside from the extra annual miles, is you won’t pay foreign transaction fees. So if you’re a big international traveler, spring for the extra $30 a year, no question. I give this card a big thumbs up.
This is the good stuff right here: cash back cards. Almost every major bank or lender offers them, but we’ve stuck with two different Chase Cards. With the Freedom, there’s one simple reason: rotating quarterly 5% cash back. Every 3 months, a fresh set of categories come down the pipe. All you have to do is sign in and claim the reward. Q3 of 2017’s bonus cash back categories are movie theaters and restaurants. Yeah, so that’s a 5% discount at ANY restaurant for 3 months. See how great this can be? The best part is that the rewards are points, not straight cash. Chase Ultimate Rewards points redeem at a higher rate than any other card provider (1.5 cents vs. 1 cent per point) when you redeem through its portal.
There’s no annual fee, plus you get a $150 sign-up cash bonus after you spend $500 in 3 months. And if that wasn’t enough, Chase offers 0% APR for the first 15 months. If you find yourself in a bind, you can sign up and put yourself on a 15 month payment plan, interest free. Make sure you pay it off in full before interest hits and always pay the monthly minimum.
As a side note, there’s also the Chase Freedom Unlimited card that gets you 1.5% cashback on all purchases. We Reimherrs like to maximize our rewards, so I don’t think that’s good enough. But if you don’t want to segment all your card usage like we do, that’s a fine option.
5. Department Store Credit Cards
Even though I'm a millennial, my love of a good deal outweighs my pride. So when we signed up for a wedding registry at Macy’s and they told us all the savings we’d get with a Macy’s card, we were sold. When we returned duplicate gifts off of our registry and bought new ones, we racked up tons of coupons. Those coupons funded new swim trunks and shoes for our honeymoon. The same can be said of the Loft credit card Maggie has. That’s her favorite store for business casual clothes. When she was building a professional wardrobe, it paid for her to be brand loyal. My buddy just scaled Mount Kilimanjaro and was constantly going to REI. It made perfect sense for him to get REI’s credit card.
If you regularly shop at the same stores, don’t feel bad saying yes when that cashier asks you if you want to open a new account.
The Reimherr household is obsessed with Amazon Prime. So when I went to buy a bicycle online and Amazon offered me a $100 credit to get a Amazon Credit Card, I was all over it. The card also offers 3% cashback on all Amazon purchases - respectable, not extraordinary. Then in January of 2017, Amazon created a new tier for the card based around Prime. If you have Amazon Prime, you get 5% cashback on all Amazon purchases. I’ve had Prime since 2011, so we were upgraded.
We are deep in the Amazon ecosystem and buy all these things online:
- Household items - toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies
- Gifts for almost any occasion
- Groceries, both fresh and nonperishable
- Toiletry items like toothpaste and shampoo
Oh and you also get 2% cashback on dining, gas stations, and drugstores. And one more thing: it's a Chase card. The cashback points are rewards points meaning they can be redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards at the higher 1.5 cent rate. See why we love it so much?
This is it, the mack daddy of our credit cards. So far, we’ve touched on rewards cards, a rotating cashback card, co-branded retail and airline rewards cards, and a co-branded cashback card. By early 2017, we were well on our way to being credit card ninjas. The last category we were considering was a premium travel card. We were living in Boston at the time traveling back and forth to the South frequently. We had also settled on how important vacation travel was to us as a couple. Getting a premium travel card made sense.
A friend of ours presented the Chase Sapphire Reserve card as the best option. Chase introduced it in late 2016 and it made a huge splash. The biggest reason? A $450 annual fee. If you’re intimidated, so were we. But after 15 hours of research, I came to believe the card was worth it due to how frequently we travel. Look at all these perks:
- A $300 annual travel credit that automatically deducts from your balance.
- 3x points on travel and dining. That includes Airbnb, Uber/Lyft, baggage fees (which you should be avoiding with either Southwest or a co-branded airline card), hotels, rental cars, flights, and ALL restaurants.
- A $100 credit every 4 years to get Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check.
- Access to Priority Pass airport lounges. These lounges are at almost all major airports. You check-in and get access to all the food, drinks, and alcohol you want. We get about $40 in value every time we go to an airport.
- Discounts on National, Avis, and Silvercar rental cars.
- 50% higher point redemption through Chase Ultimate Rewards than other Chase rewards sources (like the Freedom or Amazon Prime cards).
See what I’m talking about? We generate thousands of rewards points a month.
Oh and I forgot to mention something. When you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months, you get 50,000 rewards points. These are worth about $750 through Chase Ultimate Rewards. We signed up when the offer was 100,000 points aka $1,500. That deal expired in January of 2017, unfortunately.
Sign-up bonus aside, you need to spend about $3,300 a year on travel and dining to make this card worth it. So if you book a trip through Cheap Caribbean once a year and eat out a few times a month, this card is worth it.
If you’ve seen a trend throughout this blog post, it’s that we lean heavily on Chase Rewards cards. For travel, they’re hands down the best points.
I didn’t even have a chance to touch on the general benefits of using a credit card instead of a debit card. The list of benefits is long: fraud prevention, purchase protection, travel accident insurance, roadside assistance, rental car insurance.
What credit cards are you thinking about? What’s holding you back? Let us know!